• Romain Duris in 'Moliere' (2007) (SBS Movies)Source: SBS Movies
Get ready for the Sydney Writers’ Festival with these films about writers available to watch at SBS On Demand.
Joanna Di Mattia

24 May 2017 - 3:29 PM  UPDATED 24 May 2017 - 3:29 PM

Writers, whether historical or fictional, are fascinating subjects for filmmakers. Through stories as diverse as Barton Fink (1991), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Adaptation (2002), Capote (2005), Reprise (2006), The End of the Tour (2015) and last year’s Paterson, audiences develop an idea of what the world of the writer is like, which often stretches the limits of reality from the sublime to the ridiculous. Being a writer isn’t all perfect sentences and lightning strikes of inspiration; nor is it all self-doubt and anxious cigarette smoking. Reality sits somewhere in the middle. Whether poets, novelists, playwrights, or critics, whether imagined struggling to create or surfing the highs of success, the writing life on screen traverses the full spectrum of human experience, as is evident in the following films available now to watch at SBS On Demand.


Brothers Grimm

UK, 2005
Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Matt Damon, Heath Ledger, Peter Stormare, Jonathan Pryce, Monica Bellucci, Lena Headey
What's it about?
Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm were not themselves writers, but scholars of folklore who collected mid-eighteenth century German folk tales. Grimm’s Fairy Tales – the first of several volumes was published in 1812 – featured some of Western culture’s best-known fairy tales, including Snow White and Rose Red, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel. In many of these tales the dangers of the dark woods loom large. Terry Gilliam’s film, The Brothers Grimm, reimagines the idea of the enchanted woods with his singular flair for visual spectacle. The Brothers Grimm is a pure fantasy of escapism, not a standard biography. Starring Matt Damon as Wilhelm/Will and Heath Ledger as Jacob/Jake, the Grimms are depicted as charlatans peddling phony magic, ridding the countryside of bogus ghosts and witches. But when children begin to disappear from the woods near the tower occupied by a 500-year-old Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci), the con artists have a chance to make their fabled heroics real.



France, 2007
Director: Laurent Tirard
Starring: Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini, Ludivine Sagnier
What's it about?
Molière, the creator of the French farce, was born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in Paris in 1622. Laurent Triard’s witty film speculates on the events that might have inspired Molière to write his great satirical play, Tartuffe (first performed in 1664). When he was 22-years-old, Molière disappeared briefly from the pages of history. His theatre troupe went bankrupt and he ended up in debtor’s prison. Triard’s film begins with Molière’s return to Paris after 13 years travelling around provincial France as a comic actor with a new troupe. We then flash back to Molière as a younger man, where Triard imagines how those missing years were filled – with the satirist in service to a scheming merchant, Monsieur Jordain (Fabrice Luchini) who pays his debts in exchange for acting lessons designed to woo the lovely aristocrat Marquise Célimène (Ludivine Sagnier). Featuring a spirited performance by Romain Duris as France’s greatest writer of comedy, Molière uses tropes and dialogue from Tartuffe to draw a direct line between the artist’s life and work.



USA, 2009
Director: Isabel Coixet
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Peter Sarsgaard, Patricia Clarkson, Dennis Hopper
What's it about?
Isabel Coixet’s elegant, sensual film, Elegy, is based on The Dying Animal, the third of Philip Roth’s novels featuring the protagonist David Kepesh. Ben Kingsley plays the 60-something hedonist professor of literature. David writes books, regularly shares his expertise on radio, and conducts his carnal pursuits within a rarefied world of words and ideas. But while David is committed to exploring love in literary texts, in his own life he is more selfish. He has a long-term but casual lover, Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), a grown son, Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard) who has never forgiven him for leaving his mother, and brief affairs with fascinated and flattered students litter his past. For David, commitment is a dirty word. But one student, Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz) causes a seismic shift in his world and to his understanding of desire. Kingsley, under Coixet’s intelligent direction, elevates this aging seducer from a stereotype. Cruz, with trademark sensuality, plays Consuela with tremendous dignity and honesty. Together, they discover that there are some love lessons you can’t learn in book.



UK, USA, France, 1994
Director: Hal Hartley
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Martin Donovan, Elina Löwensohn, Michael Gaston
What's it about?
Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. This is certainly true in Hal Hartley’s film, Amateur, which features Isabelle Huppert as Isabelle, a former nun struggling to forge a career as a writer of pornographic stories. By chance she finds Thomas (Martin Donovan), bloodied and battered lying in a gutter. Thomas has amnesia – he doesn’t remember he was once a sleazy pornographer – and she lets him recuperate at her apartment. But as a series of eccentric characters begin to pursue him, including an accountant, two hitmen, and a porn star (Elina Löwensohn), the puzzle pieces fall into place. Hartley provides a light touch on some heavy subjects with his usual deadpan style. Huppert’s virginal, yet nymphomaniac nun is one of her smartest creations, a character that understands how language gives us the freedom to reinvent ourselves.


Chinese Puzzle

France, 2013
Director: Cedric Klapisch
Starring: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Kelly Reilly, Cecile de France
What's it about?
When we first met Xavier (Romain Duris) in The Spanish Apartment (2002) he was an economics graduate with dreams of being a writer. In that film’s follow-up, Russian Dolls (2005), he’s writing for money – trashy romances and ghostwriting celebrity autobiographies. Soon to be ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) mocks his compromised talent. By Chinese Puzzle, the final instalment in Klapisch’s trilogy, Xavier is a working author, and his personal life provides plenty of material. After he divorces Wendy (Kelly Reilly), who he first met in that Barcelona apartment, she moves from London to New York with their children to be with a new man. Xavier follows, to be close to the kids. Already settled in Brooklyn, are his old friend Isabelle (Cécile de France), and her girlfriend Ju (Sandrine Holt), and their baby, conceived via Xavier’s sperm donation. Throw in a green card wedding to a Chinese-American, and a rekindling of relations with Martine, and Xavier’s life couldn’t be more complex. The writing process allows him to assign some order to the chaos, but which ending will his publisher prefer?


Anton Chekhov 1890

France, 2015
René Féret
Starring: Nicolas Giraud, Lolita Chammal, Robinson Stévenin
What's it about?
Anton Chekhov 1890 is a slightly misleading title, given that the late René Féret’s beautiful, understated film in fact covers the period roughly spanning 1886-1896 in the life of the Russian doctor and writer. For Chekhov – Nicolas Giraud, in a performance of finely tuned emotional restraint – it’s a time of intense crisis and artistic renewal. He’s physically exhausted by work, supporting the entire Chekhov clan with his medical practice and writing stories for newspapers and magazines. The death of his beloved brother, Nikolai, in 1889 exacerbates his despondency. The year 1890 presents a turning point – the arduous trip Anton undertook to the far eastern Russian penal colony on Sakhalin Island, just north of Japan. Chekhov stayed on the island for three months, interviewing convicts and settlers. What he sees of human degradation and indignity convinces him that writing can serve a deeper moral purpose. A meeting with Tolstoy (Frédéric Pierrot), who advises that he give up meat and sex, intensifies his vocation. Chekhov’s greatest works – The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard – searing realist dramas were still to come.



USA, 2013

Director: Shane Salerno
What's it about?
Jerome David Salinger (1919-2010) is as famous for his influential novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951) as he is for his reclusiveness. Shane Salerno’s documentary enthralls, pulling back Salinger’s self-imposed veil of secrecy to reveal the man behind it. After the success of his only novel (he also published short stories and novellas), Salinger fled the inevitable intrusion of celebrity culture, moving from New York City to the small town of Cornish, New Hampshire. He continued to write and publish intermittently; he was never formally interviewed and rarely seen. Salerno’s exhaustive research knits together photographs, personal stories, and interviews with colleagues and friends to explore why Salinger wrote and why he stopped. Some of Salerno’s questions don’t have easy answers. Salinger’s service during World War II provides key insights. He was involved in the liberation of Dachau, and this traumatic experience shaped his outlook, explicit in Holden Caulfield’s revulsion at an increasingly ‘phony’ world.


Balzac: A Life of Passion Part 1 and 2

France, 1999
Josée Dayan
Starring: Gerard Depardieu, Jeanne Moreau, Fanny Ardant, Virna Lisi
What's it about?
Josée Dayan’s 3-hour exploration of Honoré de Balzac’s life highlights the 19th-century French realist’s great twin passions – for his writing and for women. In women, Balzac explains, he sees a “whole saga,” and in his epic, multi-part collection La comédie humaine (The Human Comedy), they comprise a significant part of his storytelling, which takes in post-Napoleonic French life in all its facets. The breadth and depth of this period in history gets a richly detailed treatment by Dayan, with lavish sets and costumes, dawn duels, and masquerade balls. Balzac’s women are brought to life by some of France’s finest actresses – Jeanne Moreau as his cold, disapproving mother Charlotte-Laure, and Fanny Ardent as his greatest love, the Polish-born Russian countess, Eve Hanska. But Gerard Depardieu’s lusty performance is the main attraction. His Balzac is a man of colossal appetites, wilful moods, and bawdy humour. Depardieu fills the screen. It’s a bold, physical and emotional performance of a life well lived and written.


Follow the author here: @JoannaDiMattia

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